I first came across barberries in the Iranian rice dish, zereshk polow, where these sharp, ruby-red dried fruit are scattered throughout fluffy rice drizzled with saffron water. Iranian food writer Sabrina Ghayour also includes them in a rice salad, in a stew of chicken and fennel and for a burst of sharpness in a herby frittata in her recently published book, Persiana. Rick Stein also adds them to a chicken pulao in the cookbook accompanying his recent series exploring the food of India, a sign of the Persian influences in the North; whilst Yotam Ottolenghi adds them to red quinoa and vegetable burgers (though I think a fatty lamb burger might make a better match for these tart dried berries).
Though they are almost exclusively found in Persian cuisine today, it might come as a surprise to learn that they would have once been a common sight on tables in Britain and Western Europe in Medieval times. But where nowadays we prefer lemons and other citrus fruits for adding sharpness and acidity to food, barberries from the Middle East were filling the same role in our cooking up until as recently as the 19th Century. All of a sudden, our taste for this fruit disappeared entirely, despite the thorny plant having established itself in British hedgerows!
Expensive dried fruit from the Mediterranean would have been restricted to the banqueting halls of the highest echelons of society and far beyond the reaches of the peasants in Medieval times: it’s this historical expense that explains the abundance of raisins, sultanas and candied peel that persist in some of Britain’s traditional celebration desserts like Christmas pudding, mince pies and dense brandy-soaked fruitcakes. Why the barberry lost its appeal when we still enjoy raisins and other dried fruit have remained popular is probably something we can’t be sure of. Perhaps, now that it could be foraged wild, rather than being imported meant it became an unfashionable, overly commonplace ingredient especially as other once “status” fruit like raisins became more affordable. Maybe its bold flavour didn’t agree with Victorian sensibilities! More likely it’s the disease that the plant can spread to wheat crops (Sichuan pepper was banned in the USA until fairly recently for having a similar disease-spreading relationship with orange trees).
The fruit has long been absent from British dinner tables, but it goes to show that our habit of poaching food from all over the world to incorporate into food at home goes back long before the chicken tikka masala. Perhaps, as highly acclaimed restaurants (like Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner, in London) are putting the spotlight on forgotten British recipes, it’s time for the barberry to make its comeback. For now though, you’ll have to hunt for it in Middle Eastern grocers or online.